Welcome to 2015: A brand new year and a great time for a fresh start. Instead of shooting for nebulous, unrealistic goals in the New Year, start off 2015 with vows to improve your digital life. (You weren’t really going to go to the gym every day or be nicer to your siblings anyway.)
Most of the suggestions below aren’t hard to achieve and some are even the set-it-and-forget-it kinds of resolutions. But you, your PC, and your data will be much better off once you’ve hit these technological high points.
Back up your stuff... online
Conventional wisdom says you should have three copies of your data: the "original" on your PC, a backup at home, and a backup off-site.
You should already be backing up your PCs at home with an external hard drive, but what about the third backup? It’s better to be safe than sorry if the worst befalls your home, like a robbery or fire.
The easiest way to get an off-site backup is to use online backup services like Backblaze, Carbonite, or CrashPlan. We’re not talking about syncing-focused cloud storage solutions like Dropbox or OneDrive here. Pure online backup services generally don’t offer sync (SpiderOak excluded) and are usually much cheaper than their cloud storage counterparts. Backblaze, the service I currently use, charges you $50 a year to back up one PC plus any connected drives.
That’s small price to pay for peace of mind about your family photos, music, videos, and documents. Consider choosing a service that gives you the option to encrypt your data without providing the service itself a copy of the key (your encryption password). It does take a little more responsibility, because if you forget your password you’ll need to upload your data to the cloud all over again—the backup service won’t be able to descramble everything for you. But in this age of governmental snooping, it's better to keep your personal data as protected as possible.
But be careful about what you put online
In late August, highly personal photos of celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Dunst surfaced online after falling into the hands of hackers who'd pilfered them from services such as iCloud. The hack was yet another reminder that you need to be careful about what you put online.
No, it's not fair to blame the victim in cases like these, but devastating hacks of personal data aren't going away anytime soon. So the best way to avoid any serious damage is to avoid putting anything online that you might regret being seen by others.
Don’t forget that any photos you take with your phone may automatically be backed up to a cloud storage service depending on how you’ve configured your settings—that how the actresses’ compromising pictures wound up on the Internet in the first place. The epic Sony Pictures hack can teach us a lot about protecting our email, including what not to say in digital messages. Finally, be sure to perform these five privacy fixes on Facebook pronto.
Get rid of XP, but wait for Windows 10
And wouldn't you like to keep up with some of the latest software? Only some of the most widespread programs, like Chrome, are going to continue supporting XP, and even Chrome’s not promising support past April. It's been more than 12 years since XP landed on store shelves, and nearly half a decade since you’ve been able to buy a new XP PC. It's time to move on—or at least time to batten down the XP security hatches if you refuse to budge.
That said, unless you installed XP on some fairly recent hardware or don’t mind giving Linux a try, you'll probably need a new PC in order to upgrade to a modern operating system. In that case, you should probably wait for the first wave of Windows 10 PCs to come out later in 2015. Windows 10 is an upcoming version of Windows that offers more traditional desktop PC behavior (such as the Start menu) than Windows 8, whose radical redesign alienated longtime Microsoft faithfuls.
It’s rumored that Windows 8 users will be able to upgrade to Windows 10 for free, but that hasn’t been confirmed yet. You wouldn’t want to buy a new Windows 8 PC only to have it be made obsolete by a far superior version of Windows months later. In the meantime, you can give the Windows 10 Technical Preview a whirl.
Swap out that hard drive for an SSD
If you’ve been holding out, 2015 is the year you should finally buy a solid-state drive.
SSD prices have plummeted, with 250GB drives available for less than $100. That’s still not as quite as cheap on a price-per-GB basis as (far slower) traditional hard drives, but nevertheless finally in the affordable range. There were also some nice innovations added to SSDs in 2014, including M.2 PCIe SSDs and Samsung’s speed- and endurance-boosting 3D V-Nand technology. And if you’re concerned about the longevity of SSDs, a recent study showed that such worries are utterly unfounded.
You really owe it to yourself (and your PC) to speed it up by swapping out that old spinning hard drive for a far speedier SSD. There is no greater upgrade you can perform. An SSD can make even the pokiest old PC feel like greased lightning.
Give Chromebooks a chance
2015 is the year to give Chromebooks another chance.
In 2014, we saw a slew of strong Chromebooks come out with decent specs and prices hovering between $250 and $400. Beyond the hardware itself, Chromebooks’ offline capabilities got a nice boost with the addition of Google Play Movies and TV, and Chromebooks got the ability to run some Android apps. Photoshop, Office, and Skype all embraced the Web (and thus Google’s laptops) in 2014. Those growing capabilities helped Chromebooks become more popular in the workplace and in schools. In July Dell was forced to halt Chromebook sales after an unexpected demand for the Googley laptops.
Yes, 2014 is truly the year Chromebooks hit their stride.
Up your security
I know, I know, security again, but there were numerous devastating data breaches in 2014, including attacks on eBay, Home Depot, JP Morgan Chase, and Sony Pictures. There's not a lot you can do to protect your username and password from getting pilfered on company servers. But you can make it as hard as possible to make that information useful.
Passwords are often scrambled using a technique called hashing that requires hackers to unscramble them (if possible) for the logins to be of any use. Using a password of common words makes it easier for the unscrambling to happen.
But a relatively long password (say 10-12 characters) of random letters, numbers, and special symbols (if allowed) can go a long way toward preventing discovery. Also make sure you use a unique password on every important site you use, such as banking, email, and social networking accounts.
Now that you're creating hard-to-remember passwords, you're going to need a tool that can remember them for you. Try using a password manager like Dashlane or LastPass. Both come with automatic password-changing features that can swap out all your passwords for new, randomized ones in a matter of minutes.
Seriously: Password managers are great. Use one.
Once you've got your passwords sorted out, enable two-factor authentication everywhere you can. If hackers do manage to figure out your password, two-factor authentication will put another stumbling block in their way.
Repurpose old gear
Before you throw out that old PC after the holidays, consider whether it has a new career opportunity, perhaps as an entertainment PC or a child’s computer. You can also breathe new life into an old PC with a few cheap, simple tweaks. (Yes, upgrading to an SSD is one of the suggestions.)
Try something new!
In recent years, the tech world has exploded with all kinds of new things to try. Why not start 2015 by reinvigorating your thirst for technology with a fresh project?
If you like gaming, 2015 is expected to be the year virtual reality debuts in a big way, with the consumer release of the Oculus Rift VR headset, priced somewhere between $200 and $400. There’s also Valve’s incoming SteamOS for those looking to drag PC gaming into their living room, as well as Steam’s killer new game-streaming feature. Or you can try running your own Minecraft server for some family fun.
If you’d like to try something a little more advanced, 3D printing is getting bigger (and easier) every year, or you can give programming and hardware hacking a shot with the itty-bitty Raspberry Pi. There are two recently refreshed models to check out, including the $35 Raspberry Pi model B+ and the $25 A+. For some serious hardware hacking why not build your own PC? If it’s your first, we’ve got some tips for avoiding common PC building mistakes.
And if you’ve never bothered with basic maintenance tasks, now’s the time to start—it’ll help your PC stay clean and run like a champ. PCWorld has guides to cleaning your PC inside and out, whipping it into tip-top shape, and locking down your Wi-Fi network.
Once again, the best part of all this is that unlike going to the gym, most of these resolutions don’t require a daily commitment. Get your gear in order, then forget about it for another year—or forever. When there’s nothing ongoing to do, there’s no ongoing resolution to break!